Mitch McConnell is using baseball for dangerous political theater during coronavirus crisis

·5 min read

Part of what’s so scary about the coronavirus pandemic is that it is a deadly disaster borne by invisible pathogens. Unless you’re close enough to the healthcare facilities to witness the rising toll, you are at the mercy of anecdotal evidence and expert advice to understand the fluctuating scope of the threat.

On an individual level, people are suffering — losing jobs and loved ones, or else getting sick themselves. But you can’t see the coronavirus in the air to understand the global scale. Our broad conception of the pandemic is based on stay-at-home orders or the near-total economic shutdowns or working from home for weeks on end or, maybe, the total absence of live sports.

You can scoff and say you were tracking the virus since the Wuhan outbreak, but for much of the country, the wake-up call that COVID-19 was going to irrevocably impact daily life in America came when Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11, forcing the NBA to suspend play indefinitely. The other sports leagues quickly followed suit, ushering in an as-yet-unresolved era of undeniable abnormality.

Everyone in society has a personal responsibility to stay informed and modulate their behavior to protect at-risk individuals in their community. But you simply can’t have a uniquely accurate, independently established understanding of the pandemic — and you shouldn’t have to! This is why we have a government that includes a center for disease control. This is why we have state lockdowns and federally issued recommendations.

This is, like it or not, why politicians matter. And why it would be useful if we believed them to be altruistic actors with their constituents’ health and safety as a primary motivating factor.

Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it quite clear on Friday that he is spending at least some of his time, which should be used to work on solving the many pandemic-related problems, figuring out how to signal and celebrate that he has already solved them. He is prioritizing the optics of a mission accomplished over the unpopular reality that we’re still very much mired in the precarious and poorly understood grasp of the pandemic. He wants to use sports to convince people everything is under control — which is not only craven and premature but almost certainly deathly dangerous.

“I called the commissioner of baseball a couple of weeks ago and I said, ‘America needs baseball. It’s the sign of getting back to normal. Any chance?’” That’s how McConnell himself relayed a phone call he had with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.

“It would be a great morale booster for the country and an indication that we’re going to begin to get back to normal,” he said.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol April 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. McConnell, Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) agreed on new $500 billion bipartisan deal to deliver more coronavirus relief to small businesses and hospitals. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he encouraged MLB to restart its season as a sign that things were getting back to normal. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

We don’t need signs or indications that things are getting back to normal — we need things to get back to normal! And we need politicians who are trying to figure out how to do that safely before they start planning their own ticker tape parades or practicing their honorary first pitches.

By virtue of his role as Senate majority leader, if not by virtue of merit, the Republican from Kentucky is one of the most influential people in the country during this moment of national crisis. This is not a political op-ed so I’ll let the political op-eds tell you that he is not making the most of the responsibility.

Talking publicly about how important it is to shush people’s very real fears and distract them from still-rising daily death tolls and disastrously unprepared healthcare systems, to symbolically smooth over the gaping socioeconomic fissures revealed in the past few months, is a shocking example of saying the quiet part out loud. If you’re a fan of the sport, you should take it as a personal affront that McConnell would conscript the quaint, unquestioned patriotism of baseball to do so.

He isn’t putting pressure on MLB to restart the season because he knows you miss watching games and he wants to make life a little better for the little guy. (Pressure, by the way, that they don’t need! Please believe Manfred will have players on the field as soon as it is either safe or socially acceptable — whichever comes first.) McConnell wants baseball back to serve as a flattering, soft-focus press release about how successful the response has been. It’s PR, sure, but it’s also something much more insidious than that.

Right now, messaging is more important than maybe ever. Not just to remain calm or to have faith that we’ll get through this together, but for substantively impacting public safety. For knowing what to do in these unprecedented times. This is not a country reeling from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, looking to sports as symbols of our resilience. There’s nothing to prove to the pathogens. Don’t let politicians tell you otherwise.

Recasting the fight to contain and effectively combat the coronavirus as one of spirit and staunch commitment to national pastimes is political malpractice. It’s also going to get people killed.

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